The human need for normalcy and how creative agency Recipe has geared up to combat ‘safe’ advertising
Have you ever gone back to visit a memorable place from your childhood? Do you have a signature scent that you always wear? Or perhaps you’re one of those people who can’t help ordering the same dish off the menu every time, because you know you like it?
There’s comfort in familiarity.
Our brains are hardwired to choose the familiar. Because, way back when, the first part of our brains to develop was our reptilian brain. This innate, deeply subconscious and primitive part focuses on our basic self preservation behaviours - like flight or fight. It helps us spot things that stick out, react to the unusual, and steer clear of hungry lions. It keeps us safe, and favours the familiar. On a basic level, it’s much safer to stick to what we know, have experienced and understand.
Trouble is, when it comes to advertising, ‘safe’ isn’t going to make an impact. Safe is, ironically, inherently risky.
“From a behavioural perspective, our initial response to something that's new or different is to be cautious,” says Ali Morgan, managing director at independent creative ad agency, Recipe. Perhaps that’s why we see so much ‘safe’ advertising, he tells LBB.
“People crave comfort and belonging, so we’re naturally, and often subconsciously, going to head in the direction of ‘normality’ where possible. This tendency could also explain why so many ad agencies talk to brands in a very similar way - so many claim to ‘use creativity to help solve business problems’ - I’m sure you’ve heard that phrasing several times before,” he states. “But if you use the same language as everyone else, your agency is never going to be distinctive enough to stand out. I don't think any agency wants to be the same as all the others. But for various reasons, they seem to so often end up in the same place.”
And it’s not just agencies who fall into this trap. “What tends to happen is you sit in a room with brands and you hear about their challenges and then you try to reflect some of that into your positioning as an agency so that you have a better chance of appealing to them,” Ali explains. “At the same time, brands have an expectation of what an agency is made up of, how it sounds and how it operates. The departments and job titles that they expect to see sets the tone. For example, brands always ask us to send through a rate card which is full of predefined job roles. But what if you don’t have account managers and creators? What if your agency uses different language and different roles?”
“There's actually very little room in this sort of relationship for big changes because if a potential client can’t understand you, or easily compare you to other agencies, they may avoid you altogether. So being different can be a challenge,” he notes. “How open are clients for us to come armed with completely different ways of setting up the commercial relationship?”
Let The World Know, We’re ‘Not Normal’
Recipe has always done things differently. It wasn’t founded in the ‘normal’ way, it hasn’t grown in the ‘normal’ way and it doesn’t want to do “normal” work.
Having been at Recipe from its earliest days, marketing lead Rea Hajifanis can attest to the agency’s pledge to strive for ‘not normal’ in everything it does. “Although we’ve only recently pushed our ‘not normal’ positioning out through our comms, it’s actually nothing new for the agency. We’ve always worked in this way.”
“I joined when Recipe was still a creative production company, and what always stood out for me was that it had such good and close relationships with partner channels such as SKY, Disney and ITV,” she recalls. “There was a lot of collaboration from the start, and I couldn't believe that one of our co-founders and creative director, Dan Jacobs, was having conversations with very senior people at these channels about the creative! It just seemed to bypass the normal process that would usually take place between a production company, the creative agency and the brand.”
With its out of the ordinary approach, Recipe was able to shortcut lengthy processes - without shortcutting the quality of the work. “I believe this is why more and more was asked of us,” Rea says. “As we started to work closer with clients on more complicated projects, we began to build our creative and strategic capabilities and teams around this production core. And it just went from there – now we have strategy, content, creative and media all orbiting around our production heart.”
“We feel it’s important to bring our philosophy to the forefront,” Ali adds, “so that anyone who thinks of Recipe as a business, knows that we operate in different ways.”
With clear messaging on its stance as a ‘not normal’ agency, Recipe hopes to encourage the dynamics needed for truly impactful work to be created. “If a brand wants to work with us, they should be on board with our promise to create something different and effective for them,” says Ali. “So on day 50, when we come to a fork in the road - something that risks pushing the project back into the comfort zone - we can remind them of that promise. Every project is made up of hundreds of decisions and if we can keep having those micro wins, it adds up to keep the project on the right path and ultimately, create properly effective work.”
“Sharing our positioning is all about how we can hold onto this value for years to come and make even more use of it,” Rea shares.
Of course, in some instances there will be certain rules to follow. “Food will probably always need to look delicious,” Ali admits. “But there will be ways in which you can really stand out just by looking at what other advertising is doing, what the expectations are, what those category generics are, and then playing with them a little.”
“The work we did for Blue Dragon, for example, was out of the ordinary for an FMCG brand at the time. There was a lot of stereotyping in this market so we decided to help the brand become synonymous with being the most authentic version in its category by representing the reality of modern East Asia rather than the often stereotyped perceptions of it.”
“We sent a documentary style crew to Thailand for a week to shoot some amazing scenes that didn’t really look anything like advertising - more like a food documentary, capturing the sounds and the smells of Thailand and its cuisine,” Ali describes.
The ‘Keep Exploring’ campaign led to Blue Dragon’s best ever sales of its Thai Green Curry Paste Pots and Sweet Chilli Squeezy, as well as a +123% sales uplift of its Pad Thai Kits. Not only that, but they’ve been able to run the TV ad effectively for the last five years with minimal changes required.
Some of Recipe’s most awarded work clearly demonstrates what ‘not normal’ thinking can do. “For our CALM campaign with Joe Marler we utilised the YouTube navigation bar in a way that no one else had ever done. The response to it has been incredible,” says Ali. The video received over 80,000 views on the day of its launch with 14,600 upvotes on Reddit. And in the last week, Recipe launched the second iteration of the campaign with DanTDM which has already had over a million and a half organic views.
Looking at the work, it’s evident that Recipe’s philosophy has real substance. And it comes from an ingrained culture of ‘not normal’ right to its core - the heart of the business: its people.
“Our team knows that they are encouraged to approach things in a different way in their day-to-day roles. This harbours a safe space for creative risk taking and out of the ordinary ideas,” Rea highlights. “We also look to hire in a ‘not normal’ way. Again, it’s about stepping out of the comfort zone. When you’re looking for an account manager, you can go to a recruiter and what you get back are people with experience working in account management. Over time, you're just fishing in the same pool of mentality or experience.”
“We’ve hired from client-side, from media agencies and from the tech world. We've got to fish in other pools and bring different skills, different ways of approaching things, fresh perspectives and different attitudes to the table. It will really help encourage a diversity of perspective,” she stresses.
From the work through to processes and down to the people who make it happen, Recipe’s mission is to elevate advertising by attracting the brands and talent who hold shared values, so that together they can make real-world impact.
“A really good positioning is a great filter,” Ali concludes, “and hopefully, that means we will continue to connect with people who see the potential in breaking away from the norms. We can’t wait to see more of the power that ‘not normal’ work can bring.”